Monday, December 23, 2019

WE WILL NOT COWER BEFORE KAUR



There was a time not long ago when I'd write an easily composed 1000 or so word diatribe eviscerating mediocre poets, which is to say poet tasters I eccentrically considered subpar, egocentric without compensating genius, bombastic without ballast, cryptic without elegance, or elegant without grit.The truth of the matter is that it's nearly easier to write, with verve, negative reviews than to write positive notices for those bards I actually enjoyed. Of course, former pleasures become burdens and for the last few years my talent for impaling the poetically inept bored me to something less than a puny yelp. There are too many rank poets to bother with; I am outnumbered and outgunned.What does raise my hackles a bit these days are generous essays by bright writers extolling the virtues of the god-awfullest scribe in our midst.  Perhaps I'd should mention as well that in those former times when I desired to be the scourge of half-baked versifying I was speaking too loudly for little insight to be heard;it's been my goal to tone down my rhetoric a few notches, although I cannot guarantee that I won't turn my amplifier up to the eleven mark yet again as tripe is served. 

A long piece by Rumaan Alam in the New Republic makes a case for the stick figure poetics of Canadian Instagram poet Rupi Kaur. Though softly insisting that her verse is not to his taste, he argues that there is validity in the kind of platform she is using, the self-obsessed imagery she posts to accompany many of her finicky line breaks, of her treating legitimate issues for women in such a way that reduces them to the most obvious sort of pandering. His article can be read hereOften there is a weird equivocation that goes on among those I ask if they think whether Kaur is any good. Not to generalize too broadly, but often they pause, clear their throat, and speak of her in terms that have no relation to the quality of her poems. Funny how we can agree that Rod McKuen, say, was an awful poet, and even some of us with strong feminist sympathies can admit that Erica Jong was a lackluster poet all this time, but when Kaur comes up in conversation she is handled with kid gloves. More power to her for using Instagram to get readers. It's a shame this poetaster serves up the thinnest gruel to the unsuspecting and naive.Make no mistake, Kaur is an awful, even dreadful poet when one of her works is made to suffer a critical examination. Sometimes you're left wondering if she read poetry at all. What I see is a young scribbler whose accomplishment has been to professionalize the very real concerns of struggling against a male patriarchy that, alas, still runs things. She has over three million followers, I hear tell, she has books that sell in the millions, and she resonates with readers who have read her work who, in turn, do not seem interested in reading poets who exceed the typically brief magazine captions that are the true literary worth of most Instagram posts. 

This the poetry for the age of the anxiety cursed I Phone owner, a failure of the attention span on a massive level. The writer here believes that her lack of literary essentials is beside the point, and that her greatness is in matters metaphysical, which is too say, intangible and unprovable. I don't see what she does as in anyway mastering the beast of the internet and social media. Kaur has been consumed by it. Her role in this all, perhaps, is that she like the band playing music on the Titanic while it slips under an icy sea.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

NoMo PoMo

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The online journal The Chronicle Review does the worrying population of undecided readers a favor in their current edition with a forum entitled 
"The Birth, Death and Birth of Postmodernism".  It's a forum of ten contributors with varying stakes in the floating crap game that is the postmodern condition each attempts to essay forth on. What has happened since Fredric Jameson essay Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”  from the New Left Review and the publication of Lyotard's groundswell book The Post Modern Condition , published years ago. Without recycling some notions of my own that are available elsewhere on this blog, we can say that the idea of postmodernism arose from the relativistic rigors--ironic, no?--of late  20th century philosophy , an ambiguous set of arguments and anti- arguments -that sought to undermine the whole notion of authority, meaning-giving, and power, essentially setting out to disrupt and overturn The Enlightenment (or advance it, depending on which seat you were sitting in some of the frothy debates of the time). It was a set of ambiguities that applied to every topic that would come to your tongue, something that would explain/unexplain everything, it was a term that joined the term "existential" as a go-to word when middlebrows, those readers who skim  or depend on book reviews for their book information, would drop like a  bag of nickles whenever they wanted to sound like the beneficiaries of a college education.  Like existential, as well, it soon enough became a buzz phrase that singled the presence of the middlebrow conversationalist who hadn't more than an in-lawish relationship to concepts, names and books under discussion. Using it seemed pretentious. It died, and academics moved to new ways to confound others and themselves. And yet the term now has currency again, it is reborn , revived, and more hated than it ever has been. So we have ten bright people giving an overview the history of postmodernism, its use in academica, how  misreading ruined political action.  The fascinatingly Chicken Little-ish Jordan Peterson was rummaging around his desk full of 80s tropes and happened upon the ever sexy and ambiguous phrase "Postmodernism" and set it aside for use as a strawman , a concept to blame for why everything has gone wrong with our culture. He tosses in the term 'Cultural Marxism" to sweeten his little vat of ill-tidings,and has handily reintroduced some basically obsolete terms back into the daily discussion of Big Ideas. It is , though, an old game blamed long and vainly, empty of real concepts. Peterson is a smart guy, a cunning debater, but what he's selling an empty box, basically repackaging the Fall From Grace , the expulsion for the Garden of Eden. His problem is that he and his fans presuppose there was a time when things made sense, were normal, were stable and adhering to the Way Things Ought to Be. Normal, stable for who? Post modernism had been a term that had currency once, was over used in all media sectors, and soon enough fell on the pile of academic words, like "existential" , that cannot not be used in any meaningful way to address our current mess, lest one provoke sneers , laughs, and parody. This is a little forum comprised of many interesting thinkers , writers, intellectuals who offer their view on the current state of what we mean or don't mean by the use f the term "postmodernism" and cultural Marxism, and the many infinite ways a useful term became garbled in a culture that cannot function without loud noise , friction and bull horned assholism.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

LYN LIFSHIN RIP

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I've heard from what others have posted that Lyn Lifshin, a very good poet I've read for sometime, has passed away. I haven't located more details, but I will offer instead that she was a wonderful lyric poet, with sharp observation shown in spare but powerful images, with a frame of mind to observe, contemplate and find parallels between ideas and objects that wouldn't inhabit the same sentence. Her poetry was not skeletal, not minimalist, it had rhythm , pace , a real pulse , but it was not cluttered; her best poems had the remarkable resonance of one those things a friend says to you in passing, a story, a notion, something that was observed, something actually uttered , which had the accidental genius of having the right words for an idea that could just as easily been talked to death. Lifshin was a remarkable poet, and we are poorer both as readers and poets alike for the loss of her. Two poems:

MOVING BY TOUCH


that afternoon an
unreal amber
light 4 o'clock the
quietness of
oil February blue
bowls full of
oranges we were
spreading honey, butter
on new bread our
skin nearly touching
Even the dark wood glowed


BUT INSTEAD HAS GONE UNDERGROUND

A woman goes into the subway,
and for what reason
disappears behind rails
and is never heard from again.
We don't understand this.
She could have gone to the museum,
had cappuccino with a lover.
But instead has gone down the
escalator, without i.d., or
even a ticket and not
for clothes or flowers. It was
a grey humid day,
very much like today.
It was today. Now you might
imagine I'm that woman, it
seems there are reasons.
But listen, I don't live
anywhere near that metro stop
and who I am is already
camouflaged behind
velvet and leather

Thursday, December 5, 2019

WHAT IS HIP?

Among the miscellaneous debris, The Seventies have given rock and roll is the chance for a new artist to regurgitate and, at times, imaginatively retool the many over-incubated cliches of Pop and rock music.Older critics who long for their youthful heyday (first cigarette, first sexual encounter, first visit to the doctor’s office without informing one’s parents) as something in the vanguard of the movement, a ...fresh and invigorating voice that outlines the future of rock and roll.. ." We seem stuck in a state, perhaps permanently, where we have given way to unavoidable nostalgia and have taken to wallowing in recollections of an Ideal Past. 

This is Fall-From-Grace stuff, a perverse funk for a generation that barely has the right to call itself middle age; as it has for some years now, we continue to search for the next Dylan, the new Hendrix, the next Beatles; overpraise and hypercritical rejection are the two polarities the new blood is greeted; the middle position did not hold in these surmising discussions. Bruce Springsteen combines elements from Phil Spector records, old rhythm, and blues tracks, and basic 4/4 backbone of rock and roll, wrapping a Dylanesque, free-associating surrealism around it. The result is a pastiche of styles that sounds forced.The motivation is obvious to a disinterested observer, but Springsteen’s movements do not move me beyond recognizing that he is influences will remain hipper than he could hope to be. 

What constitutes the ephemeral, mystically conferred essence of hip on someone, I admit, is a mystery that is and will remain the subject of engrossing discussions and debates that will not find a resolution. But I know it when I see/hear/read it, and Bruce Springsteen appears fated to remain an earnest hipster, another face in the chorus protesting the same hard knocks and cold soup. Patti Smith wants to merge early Sixties rock, all Stones and "Louie Louie" with the legends of dead poets, sounding in the end merely silly. Tom Waits combines black jazz hep jive with Jack Kerouac and sounds stupid.From this parade of pretenders, the more jaded among us are leery of anyone trying the same thing. My Aim is True by Elvis Costello, takes one by surprise. Like Springsteen, the backbone 01 Costello's music is old rock and roll. But apart from that, they differ radically. Springsteen has a tendency to stretch his material to the breaking point, pouring crescendo upon toughness, and Costello's sing• crescendo. verse upon verse, ing, similar to Springsteen's trying to create an epiphany but more tactful, is full of that never culminates into pro- buoyancy, emotion, and conviction.

 Costello, though, is without any overkill. What he loves about tin pan alley, the Brill Building, the hack songwriters of all callings, genres, convictions, was their mastery of craft. Mr. Costello knows when to be poetic and deliver a sequence of lyrics that manage to weave narrative elements and spare details that contain a beginning, middle, and end, his poetry, though influenced by Dylan and John Lennon, is under control; he doesn’t mistake a verse as an occasion for wildly opaque analogies, but for vivid items that logically follow one another in tone, temper, plot; one might not make sense of the songwriter’s word use, but you have a sense of the narrator’s situation, an element that makes this artist’s songwriter all more seductive and alluring. The stripped down to a vernacular (songs number twelve in all on the disc, unusual for a rock disc, and each exists as polished lyrical gems of a cynical, penetrating working-class intelligence. Costello's strength, a virtue that Springsteen, Smith and Waits lack, is his ability to use rock cliches for their full value. Instead of brandishing them like a set of museum pieces that one is supposed to bow to in historical awe and respect, Costello gets the heat to the meat. The make takes ownership of them and does with them as likes. 

The rockabilly stuff is done with a verve that equals Buddy Holly, his use of reggae captures the required anguished, sinister mood, and his boogie material does a lot more than plot the course for the band. His lyrics, though, are imbued with a seventies sensibility, an awareness of absurdity works minor miracles with the clichés. Though not notable for originality or innovation, My Aim Is True is an honest piece of work, and Elvis Costello has an intelligence that can develop into something more complex and rewarding. My Aim, for now, suffices as an excellent example of how old forms may be revitalized, even reinvented from scratch, with the basic elements and energy renewed, if for a time, and be metaphorically capable of making the vulgarity , self-seeking and tangible afflictions that make life a cruel waiting room all melt into air and make you happy for the voice you hear next to you and the voice he or she is singing, grateful for the breath your taking, and feeling fully alive , if briefly, knowing that you and yours are not the only ones seeking transcendence. That is what great art does, if briefly.




Wednesday, November 27, 2019

PUNK CRITIC JOHN SIMON CROAKS

Image result for john simonJohn Simon, America's meanest critic is dead at age 93. It will be noted over and over that he was of high IQ and sublime erudition, quite, quite fluent in the popular arts, low, middle and high. Though his writing had genuine mean wit--he was on occasion a remarkable phrase-maker--and his prose very often was drenched in knowing references to poets, novelists, philosophers and composers, I rarely discerned a discussion of the artist or their medium that rose above the provincial.For all the interior decoration he gave his critiques with the names and words of genuine thinkers, Simon's judgements were the worst sort of offensive, which was that of being dull-witted despite admirer's praise for his rumored brilliance. I say this as someone who read him for decades--there is a generation of literary, film and music critics I've followed because criticism is something I regard as artful and crucial when it's done well-- when I assert that the man's mind, despite the high-octane breadth, was flat footed. For a man who was feared, feted, loathed, lionized and called every name available in a shelf of obscene books, indeed, for a man consistently employed solely to render harsh pronouncements on the work of artists, it's despairing to think that his cut-rate skills  as a critical intelligence were regarded as hoity-toity, brainy, egghead stuff. In truth, Simon, as a man who was supposed to make you consider aspects of creative expressions in ways that go beyond the cliche, the platitude, the generalized sarcasm, was a mediocre critic.

His analysis was peculiarly pedestrian. His was the most useless sort of criticism, a style that was noisy, aggressively mean spirited, freakishly untouched by an illuminating idea. Ordinarily I would say some tactful remarks about recently passed writers whom I read quite a bit of,but those readers familiar with the cartoonishly patrician persona and tone Simon created and polished over many malevolent years as a framer of the national dialogue of culture and art will understand this rude send off. Finally, my guess for this deceased essence of lizardly snark's maintaining the insults, the misogynistic, homophobic, anti-semitic and racist bile over the years is that he  knew he was no Gore Vidal, no Elizabeth Hardwick, no Norman Mailer, no James Baldwin. Flawed though those writers and reviewers  could be in their expressions, they provoked debate, inspired discussion, instigated dissent --all of them , in their best and worst moments forced the engaged reader to think harder on what they'd just read. Even talking about them today can land one in along conversation in which the pondering of what the Muses avail us begins again. Simon, in that regard, was such a routine naysayer that you regarded him like he were a man with a persistent cold who could no stifle a loud, garish cough, or perhaps someone given to chronic flatulence who vented his odious stinkers when he was in the center of a center of a party of attendees cheerfully chatting away.  Once he made his noise and raised his stink, all you could do was wait for to go away and then not think of the sheer worthlessness of his existence from that point on. 


Well, John Simon has left us, and now we may get on with forgetting he was a part of any conservation. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

a note or two about my mother

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My mom, Maxelle Reed Roberts Burke, was a tough and intelligent and a pretty brilliant woman who didn't sit around waiting for things to happen. She raised the five of us with a firm but loving hand, and did me the favor of telling me the truth about how the world worked. She knew she had a dreamy, half-deaf romantic on her hands in my presence and would caution me against going the whole hog into relationships, and to be prepared for disappointment when things didn't work out to my heart's content. Besides family, she was a community activist at different times, particularly, in a campaign to get Harper Woods a public swimming pool all its own. She was an artist, an interior designer of the first rank along with our Dad, and was the brains and the brilliance behind a successful interior design business she ran with Ed Burke. She was a doer, a questioner, a person who would find out things for herself and did not suffer fools at all. More than once I've seen take apart some poor chump who thought he could "man-splain" some matter to her, whether professional, political or territorial. 

And she was wonderfully hip in ways you didn't expect; time was a family dinner in the 80s and we wound up watching a Dick Clark music award show. Jefferson Starship was one of the artists, with Grace Slick dressed conservatively. Mom shook her head and said that Slick looked like a drunk housewife. Next was punk band X, loud, grainy, distorted, too fast and definitely not hippie music. Mom liked them a lot, bobbing her head in time with the raucous noise X made. Mom was edgy in the smartest ways and had many interests, particularly in people. She had many fiercely loyal friends. What I most remember, though, was that she encouraged my love of books and music, bought me my first harmonica when the guitar lessons yielded no fruit and that she used to read to me when I was very young and would answer my questions when a story didn't make sense. And she had a beautiful voice--she sang often as she made dinner when she thought she was alone listening to the radio. It was a softer side of her that wasn't often on display. 


And did I mention that she had the best laugh in the world, a loud, robust burst of hilarity? My sister Julia inherited that laugh and it makes me happy every time I hear it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

JOKER: aggravating brilliance

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First, Joker is thematically a blend of two Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, something that co-writer and director Todd Phillips readily admits to. He's admired character study films like those from the 70s and the 80s, and it was his intent to do a psychological portrait of a complex and manifestly unhinged comic book villain in the same way. The King of Comedy underpinnings is very apt for this character who has been erasing and reconstructing the separations between comedy, tragedy and outright evil for the better part of eighty years in the comic books. Even with the conspicuous nod to Scorsese's style of giving us a Taxi Driver like a study of the making of a what we would now call homegrown terrorists--contemporary echoes of the Alt-Right neo-Nazis and the lesser antagonisms of Antifa on the left readily come to mind as the story unfolds--Phillips has his own approach in creating the slow, subtle evolution of this title card man. Visually, the movie is something else again, with New York City standing in for the mythic Gotham City--I haven't seen the grit, graffiti and architecture/neighborhood magnificence that is the Big Apple used this marvelously in some time. 

The cast is perfect for the disturbing and violent nature of this film. And get this, although there is no Batman, this is within a world that very probably does or eventually will be populated by DC's costumed heroes. But this is a standalone character study, and what they've is impressive indeed, and even brilliant in a peculiar, discomforting way. I liked it quite a lot. don't think its quite the masterpiece DC fans want it to be, but it is a finely made film that creates a mood and twists it ever so much through the film's length as we see an already on-the-edge character step closer to an abyss and he finally falls in. As Joker/Arthur is in every scene, nearly every shot, I take the story to be a stream of delusions, some situated in what appears to be Arthur's rat-race life, and others that are obviously grandiose, malevolent fantasies. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips did a superb job of managing the "untrustworthy narrator" device, of taking the audience along a path of events where are expectations are eventually unmoored by contradictory incidents. 

Phillips shows a knack throughout Joker of keeping us guessing, revealing unexpected bits of information that genuinely surprise. Phoenix deserves at least an Oscar nomination no less than Heath Ledger did. For the violence and politics, the animus toward the rich in Arthur's fevered perception hasn't an explicitly political bent, by design, I believe. The people, as they are, simply are tired of being crapped on and, like Arthur, are raging violently against the machine. And the film is beautifully, evocatively, amazingly shot--I have not seen New York City photographed this effectively in a motion picture for quite a while. And, of course, there are many who dislike this film intensely. That's the kind of movie they intended to make. I believe. 

There are hundreds of movies that have come out in the last 30 years or so that are insanely more violent than Joker--think of the Die Hard franchise, for example, or virtually Tarantino's entire body of work--but is the film that has people talking, upset, fretting. It was a strategically brilliant move to furnish this tale with a confirmed "reality, a center both writers and the audience can refer back to regain their bearings before going forward to see what develops with some idea of "what's going on". This film is wholly unreliable as a dependable account of what actually happened to this man and this city in this imagined universe, and as more is revealed, that what had been taken for granted is indeed not the case but rather its center opposite, audience reaction, or at least mine, tended toward the antsy, anxious, nervous. Even in its slowness, the film gave you no room to relax. You might consider it analogous to watching a time bomb in a crowded public space, aware that it's going to go off at some time, yet you do nothing, just watching, waiting, become slightly insane with expectation. When it finally does go off and you see the bloody death, destruction, carnage that is the consequence, uncensored, unfiltered, there is no catharsis as, say, a bullet in the skull of a generic bad guy in a Die Hard film would provide. For me it was oh shit, there it goes, here we go, this awful, oh god...

Joker accomplishes that--blurring any finessed connections between fantasy and reality, as Scorsese provided in King of Comedy,a major influence on this film, and having the violence viscerally affect you. It was like getting beaten up in real-time. This is the product of sheer artistry. The violence is pure Guernica.